The plane ride from Abu Dhabi to Cochin was unexceptional. After the turbulence faded, the plane became very quiet. It seemed to glide without any help from the engines. Everything felt extremely smooth, almost glassy, as though we were flying in a complete vacuum. That’s how I want my inner life to feel, effortless inside with rapid progress outside.
I collected my bag and went quickly through immigration. The officer asked nothing and waved me on. A long line had formed just outside. I slipped into a break in the line, which was getting longer very quickly, ending at another security checkpoint, complete with a body scanner and a disinterested, bored looking attendant. I wondered why everyone would go through security after passing through immigration.
A few people bypassed the line and strode with complete ease right through the checkpoint into freedom. For a moment, I was tempted to follow them, but the sheer numbers standing on line convinced me to stay. They were Indian, and this was India, so I figured they knew something I didn’t. Just about the time the line began to shrink, the attendant spoke loudly. “Go on, go on!” he said, waving us to go through.
And that’s what some of us did.
The Cochin airport is palatial, clean and elegant, but not brutally modern. This Indian culture is, after all, an ancient one. The airport’s structural elements aren’t notably glorified. There are bows to modernity, but it has not been designed to instill awe. Yet it is a striking expression of prosperity and wealth, a shining gateway to the grittiness of the real India. And it is entirely solar powered. Kerala is very proud of this.
Outside its confines, I can feel and smell Kerala’s tropical warmth. Rain has recently fallen. A small older couple waiting outside smiles at me. Their faces glow with the sweet lovingkindness only grandparents have. I wonder what they think. I am the sole westerner, but I do not feel alone as I walk back and forth surveying the hundreds of people waiting patiently outside the ribbon barrier to meet their relatives. I am looking for the man who will drive me to Aatma, about an hour away. After several passes, I realize he is nowhere to be found.
I stand with my bags, simply waiting. The older couple is absorbed in some business of their own. I notice that someone has come near me, a boyish man who looks to be in his forties. He’s dressed simply but neatly as so many Indian men are, in a collared white shirt and the western-style pants of a businessman. He asks, “You need driver?” He instantly engages me. I need the ride, of course, and he shows an innocence and sweetness that tells me there is absolutely nothing to fear. “Yes,” I tell him. “Five minutes,” he says, “I get car.”
It’s 3am. This story has been hitchhiking through my mind for the last hour, just waiting for me to pick it up. I’m terrified that I won’t remember the details that will make it rich, so I get out of bed to write. Outside, an unseen bird has been calling a simple, two-step call for at least an hour, constantly, regularly, untiringly. I want to see him but it is pitch black dark. The air is cool. My face is oily sweaty. I think of the young man who’s a technician here, his sweet nature, his slight build which belies an uncanny strength—and the conflict I know he feels but never betrays. He is Muslim in a Hindu land, 1500 miles from his family in West Bengal. They depend on him to help with the family farm, but he wants to be here in Kerala learning more about Ayurveda. He says his mother feels it deeply when he is away.
The driver grabs my bag and loads it into the trunk of a small diesel-powered Tata sedan. The car’s air conditioning works very well. It’s a necessity in this hot and humid southwestern state of Kerala. It’s monsoon season. That means copious rainfall, with storms that roar like lions as they collide with the broad banana leaves and the metal roofs.
As we drive on the main road, I look for sights familiar from my last ride. But nothing at all looks familiar; India is visually very complex. The driver says he knows my destination. I don’t worry. All I see is the very familiar collection of buildings in various states of occupancy, vacancy, repair, and disrepair, interspersed with lush tropical vegetation, and every so often a large empty plot of land. India’s urbanity is such an unlikely mix, a chaos that will make Westerners wince and wonder.
That chaos is woven through almost every visible aspect of Indian life, and is nowhere more evident than on the roads and streets. This driver, in a word, is an expert, one of many in my experience. He knows exactly how big the car is as he passes a slower, heavily loaded lorry while a faster car passes us, all of it happening in two lanes. He knows exactly how much brake to apply to stop the car a perfect foot behind the car in front. He makes the car dance through the traffic with other cars a foot away. Horns sound frequently in the mad, low-horsepower rush to the next traffic signal. The saving grace of Indian traffic is that most cars are diesel, not very fast. Still, some try to bully their way to the front.
Scooters and motorbikes are everywhere, piloted by very determined-looking men and guys of all ages, some with their wives as passengers dressed in beautiful, colorful, traditional Indian saris. The helmeted men wear black, looking very derring-do on their mount. It strikes me that all these Indian people are very brave, very strong, apparently impervious to the vulnerability that I see as they make their way. There are just so many people trying to get around on so many different ways, on foot, on bicycles, on a great variety of motorized things of widely different sizes. Old men and women walk at the side of the road as giant buses whoosh past right next to them. Perhaps they’ve seen it all. Perhaps all their fear is gone. As I said, these people are brave. Imperturbable. Unflappable. And they look it.
We have to stop for gas. The driver proclaims to me, “Diesel! Five hundred rupees!” It appears I must pay. That’s novel. I know my fare will exceed 500, so I figure I’m safe. He says something to the station attendant. This is India, a land of 1.2 billion people. Everyone has to eat, so, unlike the wealthy US, India has service station attendants who pump your fuel. I hand a 500 to the attendant. He puts the nozzle in the tank, and before anyone can say namaste, the pumping is finished. Five hundred rupees is about $7.38 worth of diesel.
Soon we go through a massive toll barrier. There are lots of windows. I try to make sense out of the sign that lists the fees, because I suspect that I’ll have to pay that, too. But when I try to hand the driver some money, he refuses it. He hands the female attendant a little piece of paper. The exchange a few words, and we are off.
My driver speaks very little English, and I speak absolutely no Malayalam, the primary language of Kerala. The grammar, all the articles and pronouns and such that make English sound correct to English speakers, is a hurdle for the Malayali. He does know enough English to tell me about his financial obligations, which are the main topic as we roll. I listen though I’m fascinated with the scenery, still trying to figure out whether I’m on the right road and where the turnoff for Anandapuram is. He explains that he’s going to leave Kerala for Dubai, where he’ll work as a driver. The pay is much better there. He’ll send money home to cover his father’s medical problems and his children’s schooling. Those migrations are fairly common among people from Kerala.
He laughs a bit after each revelation about his finances. His laugh has a nervous, slightly maniacal quality, but there’s some bliss there, too. I can’t figure out whether he’s anxious or worried. There’s not enough common language between us. Many Indians assume all Americans are wealthy. Most Americans are wealthy compared to most Indians. He does not seem beset with problems. His nature is sweet and his driving is right on. He says he will be in Dubai for a number of years, and we agree that it will be hard on him to be away from his native India. The two cultures couldn’t be more different. My driver has my heart.
The people of Kerala have, in my experience, a sweetness and an honesty that might leave you in wonder. Last year, the barber in the village, who charges a hundred rupees for a haircut, refused the 10 rupee tip I offered him. I bought 4 rupees worth of bananas from a lady who has a small market. I had only a fifty rupee note. She waved me on with a smile. I brought her the money the next day. So you know, there are about 60 rupees to the US dollar.
We continue to roll after the toll barrier. But soon the driver stops the car. He appears to recognize someone on the roadside, and he calls out to the man, but not loudly. I have no idea what’s happening. The driver says something, and the roadside man points in the direction we were driving. I gather we are not lost, and so, apparently, does my driver after the brief conference. We move on.
Moments later, after some silence, the driver again stops the car to confer with someone on the roadside. This time, the man points toward the direction from which we have come. We are lost, but not very lost. That’s what I hope as we drive back through the toll barrier. By this time I could likely do a fairly accurate financial analysis for my driver. There are absolutely no signs for the village, nothing that I recognize. We make a turn onto a side road, and once again, my driver asks directions of a man who he also appears to know. He points in the direction we are driving.
We make another stop to confirm our direction, just before a familiarity comes to me. I realize, at last, that we are not lost. We are minutes away. But though I tell the driver in my most reassuring manner that everything’s cool, that we’re on the right track, and so forth, he doesn’t quite believe me. So we stop a couple more times, and I show the picture of Aatma’s sign to the men we meet through the car window.
After I get out of the car, the driver calculates the cost of the ride. He’s absolutely honest, and the price—1100 and some odd rupees, tallies just right with the 500 I gave for diesel. That’s what I’ve paid in the past.
He tells me to call him whenever I need a ride. “I’ll be there,” he says proudly.
I gave him most of what my wallet held, about 1800 rupees.
He smiles. “This is a good man,” he says. And he drives away.